Should I Travel Solo as a Woman? Yes, But Don’t Expect Safety.

© Take Your Big Trip 2019

“Should I Travel Alone?”

Through my now-retired blog Take Your Big Trip (TM) and the travel events I spoke at advising would-be travelers to live their travel dreams, I was frequently asked this question by women who were considering a solo trip.

My answer was, and still is, Yes.

The second question they’d ask would be, “is it safe?” In response to these questions, I started to write a post as a collection of advice I had given over the years: yes, yes…go definitely, the experience is unlike any other… it’s transformative. I’ve traveled to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America and had incredible experiences, met lovely people, and fulfilled my wanderlust. As a woman traveling solo, my rules of thumb were always… wear conservative clothes and follow some commonsense advice like:

Don’t make eye contact.
Don’t smile at strange men.
Don’t laugh or flirt, as this may be taken as an invitation.
Don’t go out at night.
Don’t accept help from strangers.
Say you have a husband or a boyfriend.

Essentially, hide yourself, don’t be noticed, and certainly don’t act as a person who feels safe walking down the street or being open to the kindness of strangers. This collection of “don’ts” did not seem to be the right advice to give to future solo travelers. The plethora of articles, mostly blog posts, about traveling along as a woman are rife with similar advice.

My Own Experiences Were Okay, But That Doesn’t Mean For Every Woman It’s Okay…

In my own experience traveling, I can tell you that overall I was okay. Over many years of solo travel to India, Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, I didn’t feel that my safety was overtly threatened. I was the beneficiary of kind behavior by men, men who didn’t appear to have an agenda other than helping me. I can tell you about the time there was a train strike in India and a man in my shared rickshaw made sure I got the train station from the bus station. He waited until I had sorted things out with my departures before he went on his way. I can tell you about the friendly hotel clerk who summoned a team of hotel workers to dispose of a cockroach in my hotel room. Once the cockroach was gone, the three men promptly and professionally left my room.

Unfortunately, I can also write about the time when a boy reached out his hand and slapped my breast from a moving motorbike in Delhi. Or the many young men who held their cellphones in front of their face while pointing the camera lens at me, resulting in a skin-crawling, shivery feeling that felt like a violation. Or the story of a rickshaw driver who brought my Japanese Rieki classmate to an abandoned street and groped her until she wiggled away and ran for safety. I can tell you about the time I returned “hello” from a strange man and, when he wouldn’t leave me alone, I had to leave the area. I can tell you when I ignored my “gut” or intuition and accepted invitations for tea or lunch that I knew didn’t feel right, but I didn’t want to be rude or lonely. These were the experiences that I didn’t want to talk about when answering the “Should I travel alone?” question from would-be women travelers.

In the past, I chose to ignore the “bad” stories in my advice to other women travelers because I wanted them to visit the worlds wonders. I advised sitting atop my luck, privilege, and hindsight.

I Don’t Believe You Can Expect to Be Safe Because Women Aren’t Safe

I believe women can and should travel alone, but we cannot have the expectation of safety. If we visit any place that does not value the safety of women, which is most of the world, including the U.S., we will be treated accordingly. One of our major trials, at home and on the road, is that men typically do not take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions towards women. Laws typically do not punish violent crimes against women. As reported in the New York Times article, countries do not even track violence statistics for female travelers because, according to Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, they do not want to expose data the presents a poor image of their country.

As a woman, at home or abroad, we can do everything “right,” and still become a victim of harassment and violence because of sexism and misogyny. The reality of our existence is rife with gender norms, double standards, and threats of indifference, harassment, and violence. The reality for BIPOC women is worse than what white women experience.

Still, You Should Go

To answer the question “Should I travel alone? I give my answer: yes, you should.

There’s nothing like awakening to the world in the silence of the Taj Mahal at dawn, finding yourself in front of the Pyramids of Giza after a long winter, or eating street food for a week and agreeing with the purveyor that spicy, is in fact, always better. There’s also nothing like figuring out how to get to those Pyramids by Cairo metro and auto bus instead a tour, of sitting down at a Madrid cafe and ordering in the local language, or gabbing with other travelers in Goreme, Turkey about your lives, hopes, and dreams in an all night session. Traveling solo is the opportunity to connect to the world. Traveling solo means you can throw yourself at the great world with adventure in your heart and find out you can do more than you thought possible.

However, to venture forth on our great solo adventures, we have to accept one essential truth that women travelers have always accepted. It’s not safe for a woman to travel to a country until it’s safe to be a woman in that country.

We have to accept the risk and go anyway. If we feed the fear and ignore the wanderlust, then misogyny wins. We travel because we can persevere despite these threats, respecting ourselves, the local culture, and each other along the way. We travel because so many women cannot. We travel to become role models for other women who want to venture out, but need that push from fear to familiarity.

The mountain climber knows all the dangers of climbing the mountain and still she goes, because it’s there. What the climber does not expect is to be safe along the way, nor does the climber tell the mountain how it should be. She prepares, knows what to expect, and climbs, accepting the risk because to stay on the ground is more of a burden to her soul.

Travel not as a tourist full of expectations that your experience the same as your home country, but as a witness and a guest.

  • Research the lives of local women.
  • Reach out to your network and ask if they can introduce you to local women and visit them in country.
  • Connect with local women on the tourist trail, not the multitude of men who are so easy to meet and talk to.
  • Connect with local organizations advocating for women’s rights and ask if you can visit them to learn more.
  • Read about how the #MeToo movement lives and breathes around the world.
  • Watch the videos from the Women in the World 2019 conference and learn about the sacrifices women’s rights advocates make to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law.
  • Donate to organizations like Global Fund for Women and Half the Sky that are working to make the world safer for women.
  • Record and share your travel experiences of the good and the bad with the recognition that it’s a lighter, safer version of what women deal with on a daily basis.
  • And of course, be a prepared mountain climber and do all the things to stay safe without any expectation that they will be fool proof. Never, ever feel bad about blatantly ignoring a strange man, especially one who you don’t want to talk to. I have never regretted ignoring a man, but I have regretted the few times I have acknowledged someone I didn’t want to talk to.

The more we travel, the more we can experience the world through the eyes of others. The more women we meet and the more stories we share will connect us all.

p.s. To counter the stories in the New York Times article, read “Women Trailblazers on the Out of Eden Walk” and the book, “Land of Lost Borders,” by Kate Harris